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Rugby history at The National Archives

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Rugby history at The National Archives

Rugby tackle, 1910. Catalogue reference COPY 1-550

Rugby tackle, 1910. Catalogue reference COPY 1-550

23 March 2009

The 2009 RBS Six Nations Championship has showcased some truly thrilling rugby, culminating in a titanic clash at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium between title holders Wales and a resurgent Ireland.

The luck of the Irish proved too much for the Welsh side on Saturday, as captain Brian O'Driscoll led his triumphant team to take the Championship, as well as Ireland's first Grand Slam win in 61 years.

In the past, however, rugby has not always been dominated solely by what happened on the pitch. Here, The National Archives reveals some examples of the politics behind the game, and the influence of events beyond the touchline.

Memo on crowd handling from 1969 police conference. Document reference HO 325/125

The Springboks' tour of 1969-70

The Springboks' rugby tour of 1969-70 was overshadowed by the British public's increasing awareness of, and opposition to, the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

The 25 match tour was dogged by protests that frequently descended into violence. At Swansea, protestors overwhelmed the police and invaded the pitch; the violence meted out by stewards and spectators alike was shown on national television, and the government took steps to prevent similar scenes occurring again.

At a conference arranged by Prime Minister James Callaghan, highly praised guidelines were drawn up by John A Taylor, Chief Constable of Leicestershire and Rutland (HO 325/125). Similar handouts were distributed to other forces at tour matches and, although the protests continued, there were far fewer casualties off the pitch.

On the pitch, things went badly for South Africa. Despite the best efforts of an often impressive pack, they were beaten by England and Scotland and only managed draws with the Welsh and Irish.

The police conference, however, was to yield far-reaching results. This memo on crowd-handling (see above, right) anticipated the 1970s, which would prove to be a troubled decade of industrial disputes, increasing activity from the far right and racial tension in the inner cities. Training in handling large demonstrations was to become a necessary feature of working life for most police officers.

Proposal for a Metropolitan police rugby tour of Sweden

The Metropolitan Police in Sweden 1946-47

These documents (MEPO 2/7720) reveal plans to organise a rugby match between a Metropolitan Police team and their Swedish counterparts in Gothenburg.

While the trip was intended to showcase the 'prestige and popularity' of the Met, it also carried important political implications. Neutral Sweden's trade with Germany throughout the Second World War had resulted in a sometimes frosty relationship with Britain. However, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin supported the Consul-General's plan to build on the success of a similar match the previous year, which, 'in spite of a heavy defeat for the Swedes ... [planted] the seed of Rugby mindedness'. 


Some Like It Rough press release

Some Like It Rough - Rugby Union v American Gridiron

A more positive political side to rugby was revealed in the Second World War Ministry of Information propaganda film, 'Some Like It  Rough'. Intended to bolster the special relationship between Britain and the US, the film jokingly sought to settle an age-old argument: which is tougher, American gridiron football or rugby union?

The short film starred Sgt. John Sweet as an American GI debating the merits of his favourite sport with a rugby-loving Tommy. Sweet had recently appeared in the Powell and Pressburger classic 'A Canterbury Tale', and while whether or not 'Some Like It Rough' reached such lofty artistic heights is open to debate, both productions proved to be fairly testing for amateur actor Sweet, who was left 'a very sore man' by the bruising two-day shoot. Abandoning his showbiz career, Sweet retired to the 'nice quiet battle' of liberating Europe, and after the war became a teacher back in the States.

The file INF 6/633 includes the script and two versions of the film's press release.

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